Ohio State football: How the Buckeyes’ defense has changed on the fly

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COLUMBUS -- Matt Barnes downplayed his role as de facto defensive coordinator for Ohio State this week, the first time he has met with reporters since a restructuring of the coaching staff that followed a Week 2 loss to Oregon.

“I think every coach has things that they see slightly differently than another coach,” Barnes said. “Sometimes it can be just a little thing, so there’s a couple of things that maybe have changed, but we’re all working together on how to get it right.”

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Barnes entered the season as the secondary coach while Kerry Coombs had the title of defensive coordinator with Al Washington coaching linebackers and Larry Johnson the defensive line coach and associate head coach.

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Coombs came back to Ohio State prior to last season with a new title and instructions to maintain a certain structure of defense head coach Ryan Day decided he prefers when he took over in 2019.

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Up front, that consists of four down linemen and three linebackers, though one of the latter could be a hybrid player (known as the “Bullet”) with the ability to do extra things in coverage. The secondary was to have a deep safety in the middle of the field, two cornerbacks and a “cover safety” who could play closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, blitz or cover as necessary.

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The alignment is part of a family of strategies known among football coaches (and the strategy junkies who love them) as “single-high coverages,” one of two types of defensive structures that dominate the game today.

The other calls for two deep safeties to each take one half of the field, a philosophy that forms the umbrella of strategies known as “split-safety coverages.”

The single-high looks can be used with man coverage or zone, though Ohio State lately has prided itself on being able to play man most of the time. The strategy was a smashing success in the first season, perhaps in no small part because of the presence of multiple experienced players who turned out to be NFL first-round draft picks, but not so much last year.

The head coach had a chance to change things in January with the retirement of veteran co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, but Day opted to stay the course and see what happened with a more normal offseason to prepare.

That decision went out the window after the Bucks were torched by the Ducks, who ran for 269 yards and threw for 236 more in a 35-28 upset.

Their success owed heavily to the predictability of Ohio State’s scheme, and it led Day to take game-day play-calling duties from Coombs and assign them to Barnes.

After making a few changes in Week 3 against Tulsa — a game in which the visitors still gained over 500 yards — Ohio State unveiled a significantly different scheme last week against Akron.

In his weekly review of OSU’s Xs and Os for BuckeyeScoop.com, football strategy writer Ross Fulton noted Ohio State played as much if not more split safety coverage as it has since the start of 2019.

In a subsequent interview, he explained that means different roles for the Bullet and both safeties.

Ronnie Hickman, the sophomore who has been the primary Bullet so far this season, has become a safety in the new scheme, and he aligns to the “boundary” (short side of the field) instead of mirroring the tight end’s alignment.

Rather than be in the middle, the former single deep safety — a role filled by multiple players so far this season — will more often be aligned to the “field” (wide side) and could find himself in man coverage at times.

Meanwhile, the former “cover safety” -- redshirt freshman Cam Martinez last week -- has become a nickel back who takes the place of the third linebacker in a traditional 4-3 defense.

(With offenses frequently in three-receiver sets nowadays, “nickel” has become the primary form of defense for most teams in the NFL and college.)

The Buckeyes held Akron to seven points and 229 total yards, but how the changes work against better competition remains to be seen.

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They should at least be harder to game plan against, and Fulton noted many players did a better job executing the new scheme than the old one.

“I think part of that is because when an opposing offensive coordinator knows what they are getting, they can exploit that and put defenders in bad spots where they have to cover two things at once,” Fulton said. “That makes guys look tentative and out of position.”

The coaching staff has also mixed in more blitzes, especially on run downs. That gives opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks something else to think about.

A more attacking style also makes the Buckeyes less vulnerable to the so called “run-pass option” plays that can freeze a defender unsure of whether or not a quarterback is going to hand off or throw a pass right behind him as soon as he breaks for the running back.

As with everything in life, there are tradeoffs of course, and in this case it could be a defense that is more vulnerable to giving up.

Day wanted the Buckeyes to be a bend-but-don’t-break unit, but repeated failures of that philosophy necessitated taking more chances — risks so far that have paid off, at least against an overmatched opponent.

“They’re doing more volume of stuff on defense than I thought they would ever go to,” Fulton said. “The increase in blitzing can help cover gaps, create pressure and remove run-pass conflicts, but it can obviously leave you vulnerable on the back end.”

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